At Sundays, I usually write about personal experiences that have influenced my teaching style. Today I will write about something that has caused me some trouble during my college student life, both as graduate and as undergraduate, in Puerto Rico: my national identity. I believe that my nationality is USA, not Puerto Rican. For me, Puerto Rico is not a nation.
In Puerto Rico the conception of national identity is usually mixed up with a partisan view. If you believe that you are from USA, you are assumed to belong to the political party that promotes Puerto Rico’s statehood. If you believe that you are Latin American, you are assumed to belong to the political party that promotes Puerto Rico’s independence. If you believe you are both, you are assumed to belong to the political party that promotes the current political status of Puerto Rico.
For me, the conception of my national identity is not connected to the belonging to a specific political party. I believe that I am both from Unites States and from Latin American, but I don’t identify with any of the political parties of Puerto Rico. I believe that my country and homeland is United States and I believe that Puerto Rico is part of United States, but I don’t belong to the political party that promotes statehood. I believe that from the experience of traveling through Latin America, North America and Europe. You see, it is very easy to say “Puerto Rico is a nation” when you had never been outside Puerto Rico. However, it is very, very difficult to know and live in other nations and affirm that Puerto Rico is a nation. That has been my experience.
Spanish people call “American” to people of the whole continent (as it should be, I think), not only to people from United States. So, I was clearly American for them, but it doesn’t meant they believed that I was from Unites States. All depended in what language I chose to speak, because they don’t know how to notice the difference between United States English and Puerto Rican English: it was American English, period. If I spoke American English, I was assumed to be from United States. If I spoke Caribbean Spanish I was believed to be Latin American, from “somewhere there.” However, the difference between how you were treated if you talked to them in Spanish and how they treated you when you talked them in English was astonishing. I was clearly paid more attention when I talked in English, even if they did not understand me at all. I was even called a very offensive name, “sudaca”, once, because they place where I lived was full of people of South America, so I was assumed to be South American while talking in Spanish (I had no idea of why, because my Spanish accent is clearly Caribbean accent, not South American accent. I did not considered an insult to be considered from South America, but the way it was told to me). I love Spain (I consider it my “mother homeland”) and I knew many people who respected me no matter what language I chose to speak. However, when I lived in the north of Spain, that was the reaction many times. When I lived in the south of Spain the reaction was quite the opposite: I needed to hide my United States passport, speak Spanish and affirm that I was from Puerto Rico (not from United States) in order to avoid stares in certain places. That way I learned about the convenience of having two ways to say the same: I could say “I am from Puerto Rico” or “I am from United States” and “technically” I would not be lying in neither way.
So, how I chose that I am citizen “from United States” and not “from Puerto Rico”? I lived the experience of being in a terrorist attack (of ETA, if you have the curiosity to know) and from that moment on I began to reflect about my national identity, and why some people were capable of kill (or at least, attempt to) in order to affirm their national identity. I began to read and to be more aware of the Puerto Rican colonial status in that process.
Through the months after that terrorist attack I had many sleeping difficulties due a sound in the ears that began after the terrorist blast. I began to have severe memory problems also. I began forgetting very important things around me. For example: I lost my passport three times in a year span. Each one of those times I needed to go to the Embassy of United States in Madrid in order to get an emergency passport, and face a shaming-but-necessary process to prove that I was who I was supposed to be and that I was not selling the lost passports.
That experience taught me that if anything happened to me the place that I would need to go would be that embassy. Puerto Rico’s “national government” had no capability at all to respond to any situation of “its citizens” outside the island. Only United States had it. What kind of nation couldn’t be able to respond for its own citizens? If a nation is not able to respond to its own citizens, it is not a nation at all, because the citizens are the reason of being a nation. All this means that I began to be conscious of what “being from United States” meant while I was living abroad. In Spain I was as citizen of United States as any other citizen of United States would. I was not treated differently just for being Puerto Rican, as it has clearly happened many times when I had been in continental United States. It is a fact that a Puerto Rican may be treated as a “different kind of citizen” when he or she is in continental United States, and that many Americans doesn’t know that Puerto Ricans are United States citizens.
Besides living in Spain (Granada, Pamplona), I have visited some cities of United States (Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia), of Latin America also (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Costa Rica), and of Canada (Toronto, Quebec). After all those travels, I determined that the “nearest place” to how I lived in Puerto Rico were the cities of Florida, specially Miami.
I feel I should clarify that although I don’t believe that Puerto Rico is a nation and I believe that United States is my homeland, I do believe that there is a Puerto Rican culture. Having a cultural identity that is different of your nationality could be conflictive to some, but for me it isn’t. I don’t see contradiction in being culturally Puerto Rican and being citizen of United States. I am actually proud of it. What I am not proud about is the kind of relation that United States has developed with Puerto Rico. Let’s say it clearly: the current political relation of Puerto Rico with United States functions as a colony, although it cannot be called officially that way. However, no matter how many defects that relation may have, it does exist. Puerto Rico is part of United States, although right now the relation between them it is not in its best shape. For me, resolving this colonial relationship is not a matter of political affairs or partisan affairs: it is a matter of human rights. Puerto Ricans depend on the decisions of a president they can’t vote for, and that is a clear violation of human rights, just to say an example. It is an inconvenient truth for United States, but still it is a truth, no matter how unseen it is.
Although I affirm that Puerto Rico is part of United States and that my nationality is USA, I respect those who doesn’t believe so. I am no one to impose a national identity to any one, but that doesn’t mean that I should be imposed a national identity that I don’t believe I have. Sadly, that could perfectly happen in Puerto Rico through different channels. I will give only one example of this.
While I was a graduate student of theology in Puerto Rico, I proposed the painting Iesu Amor to the Arts Festival of the World Youth Day in Brazil. Usually, to a person be able to do this he or she needs a lot of support. At the beginning, when I shared the I idea, I got plenty of support, enough to be able to believe that I would be able to complete the process of proposing Iesu Amor to the WYD and to begin that process. However, something happened during that process.
I was attending a class about the History of the Church in Puerto Rico. In one of the class discussions, I proposed something “almost heretical”: Puerto Rico should have some kind participation in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a participation similar to the one we have in CELAM, because we are part of United States (I was referring to Puerto Rico’s constitution) and we culturally belong to United States also (not only to Latin America), our parishes are more like Miami parishes than like Latin American parishes, I argued. My classmates and even the professor got angry after hearing that. “Puerto Rico is a nation, we participate in CELAM only.” someone told me. I said clearly that I thought that Puerto Rico is not a nation, but part of United States. I stated that not only because of our constitution, but because what I have learned while living outside Puerto Rico. I caused a huge scandal among my classmates, most of them from the Archdiocese of San Juan, for daring to affirm that Puerto Rico is not a nation. After that incident, many of those people who had offered me their support with the process proposing Iesu Amor to the WYD did not show their support any more. After experiencing the very same issue when I told clearly that I could not apply theology of liberation in the theological part of Iesu Amor (I mean: people who initially supported me withdrawn their support when they knew I was not applying theology of liberation, nor interested to apply it), I chose to keep going with the proposal of Iesu Amor to the WYD by my own, so I could “protect” IesuAmor from becoming a “nationalism symbol” (Iesu Amor is not supposed to have a nationality because God’s Love is universal) or an application of Marxist ideology (we studied the first document written about the theology of liberation and it clearly quoted Marx, and I couldn’t apply that kind of theology to Iesu Amor because it reduces the human person. That was one of the reasons to develop a theology of my own for creating Iesu Amor). I did absolutely everything that a whole team of people and experts should do, including reviewing that Iesu Amor and the theology of light was aligned and agreed with the Church’s Magisterium, with my own available resources. I was able to send the painting to the WYD, but it didn’t returned to Puerto Rico.
Of course, everyone is in all his right to not support what they can’t agree with. But declining to support what is supposed to be an ecclesial project, like creating and sharing ecclesially and internationally a painting that imagines the Love of God, just because the author does not believe that Puerto Rico is a nation, or just because the author is not a liberation theologian, taught me that ideologies can be very dangerous. At the very end, it was like doing the same thing that the terrorist did in the terrorist blast I lived in Spain, but intellectually. I mean: terrorists are capable of killing a person for their ideology, so, attempting to kill an idea because that idea does not get along with the own ideology is doing the same thing than a terrorist, but intellectually.
I thought this issue very carefully before choosing to keep going with the proposal of Iesu Amor to the WYD by my own. Puerto Rico have a huge “politization” problem: everything is “politized” (mixed with politics). I needed to avoid Iesu Amor to be politized, and for doing that I needed to have the whole creative control of Iesu Amor’s proposal process. It was not a “nationalization” issue: although I believe that Puerto Rico is part of United States, Iesu Amor is not meant to promote statehood neither, so I needed to avoid any political interpretation of what I was doing, in an environment where everything was highly “politized” and “socialized” (with “socialized” I mean “seen mainly from a social perspective”. That “breaks” the integractive vision of the theology of light, that integrates the organic dimension, the ontological dimension and the social dimension). I thought all these issues when I chose to keep going with Iesu Amor’s proposal alone and to do everything that I could to protect the idea that Iesu Amor truly meant to promote: the “visualization of God’s Love” in the whole personal formation; the process of informing, conforming, transforming and reforming the own personal formation as a living sign, a visible sacrament, of that Love.
It took me a while to realize that, although it was not my intention, Iesu Amor also became, somehow, a “nationality proposal” for me: I was proposing myself another kind of nationality, a “national identity” that is not founded in a partisan view, or even in belonging to a specific a country, but in living God’s Love, in living charity. I think Saint Paul explains this better than me, so I am not going to deepen this. It was my Puerto Rican culture what taught me to call Jesus “my Love” (in Puerto Rico, it is very common to call people “my love”), but Iesu Amor taught me to transcend cultural views and transform it in a broader vision, a vision of fraternity among cultures (including between Puerto Rican culture, Latin American cultures and American culture), and even among nations. It also took me a while to realize that with Iesu Amor I was also serving my nation and my cultures: I was proposing a fraternity (sacramental fraternity) that can help to be, to do, to grow and to radiate all kind of people and to affirm the dignity of the humanity of everyone.
Let me be very clear in one important detail related with my “choice” of nationality and Puerto Ricans’ dignity: you need to have a “charity vision” to forgive many injustices that have been committed to Puerto Ricans by United States. I am not blind to the fact that United States has denied the dignity of Puerto Ricans many times in their ways to deal with Puerto Rican affairs. If you want to know more about those errors, you can read “War Against All Puerto Ricans,” by Nelson A. Denis. However, with a “charity vision” it is possible to choose historical forgiveness, to embrace all the growth that USA has brought to Puerto Rico and to be able to affirm with personal pride (not ideological pride) that your culture is Puerto Rican, Latin American, Spanish and American, and your nation is United States.
How all these experiences about my national identity influence my teaching style? It has influenced me in several ways. A first way is that I try to avoid to become an “intellectual terrorist”: I avoid to attempt to kill ideas that are not agree with my vision, I simply let everyone create their ideas as they choose if they do it in a respectful manner. This also means that I teach to my students all kind of ideas, not only those which I am agree with. A second way this influences my teaching style is that I do not make nationality distinctions in my students: for me they are all human beings, sons and daughters of God. A third way is that I avoid all kind of nationalism in my classroom. I actually even avoid using the expression “my nation”, but when I use it, I let each student decide what “nation” means, without letting them assume that If someone says “nation” he means “USA” just because I mean “USA” when I use the same expression. I call this an “open-meaning word”. For me, letting them assume that “nation” can only mean “USA”, or that that nation can only mean “Puerto Rico”, would be intellectual proselytism. For example: I have seen instances where the expression “our nation” is used as equal to “Puerto Rico” in ecclesial documents, and that equals to implicitly exclude from the Church everyone who doesn’t believes that Puerto Rico is “our nation”, but USA. I avoid that kind of situation in my classroom by letting everyone choose what “nation” means when using that word, without imposing or even promoting a specific definition, or my own definition.
Another way that these experiences has influenced my teaching style is that I when I need speak about the Puerto Rican nationality issue to my students, I speak about all the options, letting the students to “build” their own view and make their own choices about their nationality, respecting whatever they want to affirm. Other way this has influences my teaching style is in my choice of showing respect to both anthems and flags (Puerto Rico and United States’ anthem and flag), no matter if those who are around me choose to only show respect to the Puerto Rican anthem and flag, and of teaching my students to do the same because all anthems and flags should be respected. Finally, this has taught me that is very important to affirm the value of the human person always, inside the classroom also. The human person is worthier than any other thing. It is not worthy to try to “break” a person for the sake of nationalism, or any other ideology. If you can’t agree with someone, never try to impose your view, because that is not respectful and you can cause damage. It is OK if we do not agree with someone’s view, but it is not OK if we can’t respect each other’s views. Usually this is a very important lesson for my students, no matter in which form it is applied (believe me, this lesson can be applied to many different circumstances).
A final idea to conclude this blog post: I do believe that we need to be aware of our duty to serve our nation and our homeland (whatever you believe it is) with our personal growth, through becoming who we are meant to be. It is often believed that to change a nation a revolution is needed. I think that changing a nation begins with changing the own personal formation in order to be the best person we can be. If you want to change your nation, be the change you wish to create in your homeland. (In Spanish: Si quieres cambiar tu nación, sé el cambio que deseas crear en tu patria). The true revolution begins with each person’s choice of living charity, of radiating God’s Love, of incarnating fraternity, of creating communion. I have read several times that someone told, I don’t remember right now who, that “love is love”. I can say it in a different way: God is Love. God’s Love––a Love that is a Person, a personal encounter that radiates life in communion, not an ideology––can change not only our personal formation but our nation if we choose to let us inform, conform, transform and reform by that Love. A teacher can change a nation with his or her example of Love. A parent can change a nation with his or her growth in Love. A builder can change a nation with his or her work of Love. We all have the amazing opportunity of creating a better nation for all through helping to be, helping to do, helping to grow and helping to radiate God’s Love, beginning with our personal formation.
Let’s keep growing!